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Dealing with all that death

A dry fall is upon us, but it’s hard to forget what a wet summer we had. After a storm of epic proportions, tears soaked the ground to record depths in Lincoln County. Even the most optimistic among us wondered if the sun would never show its face again.

And when I told an out-of-stater that I lived here, right in the middle of all the mourning making the Memorial Day news, I was met with a hard thought: How does a small community deal with all that death?

Good question. As headlines proclaimed the truth – “Families Mourn Loss of Seven” and “Now and Forever 10-7” – the local folks reading them were reeling and shaking their heads in disbelief.

I mean, how do you regain your footing after such a tragedy? By covering a patrol car in sentiment? By donning your best black attire for funeral after funeral after funeral?

Riverwood’s Colby McMorris described what happened behind the scenes at Deputy William Durr’s service, attended by more than a thousand mourners: “Volunteers from the sheriff’s department, police department, civil defense, drug court, community fire departments, ambulance services, and others came together to honor him. They blocked intersections and parked hundreds of cars.”

He also noted the kindness of Easthaven Baptist Church, who offered their facility at no cost and helped manage all the complications that come along with hosting a large funeral gathering. “We had people calling from all over offering to pay towards his service,” McMorris remembers.

There were other generous pockets, too – ones that established accounts for the bereaved and sought to help William Cory Godbolt’s family when their home (and world) came crashing down around them.

But before that there was the slow, sad 14-mile procession to the cemetery after Durr’s funeral. The roadside view provided another clue as to how a small community deals with all that death: They do it solemnly, and with respect.

It was firefighters hanging a flag clear across Highway 51 and young boys tucking their shirts in for the first time ever. It was old men removing John Deere caps and placing them across their chests. It was mamas with tired arms holding sweaty babies who should have been taking naps.   

The bystanders – hundreds of them – planted themselves there in groups in the gravel and in pairs on the hillside and sometimes solitary by a sign. They stood there in the heat for over an hour during the middle of a work day to show respect. And they shouted it loud without saying anything, because the willingness to be inconvenienced speaks volumes these days.

But the “whys” linger, and at Faith Presbyterian Church, Pastor Russ Hightower has had the tough job of dealing with them. “One of our students was friends with the young men involved in the tragedy. In the face of such severe suffering, there is one thing I try to say: I don’t always understand what God is doing, but because of the cross, I trust him,” explains Hightower. “In the hard places of my own life, I have found that to be an incredibly encouraging reminder – to look to what Jesus has done in the face of such pain.”

Other community members had no connection to the hurting families, but shared their sorrow all the same.

“From the first media announcement of the tragedy, the names of those eight victims and their families, as well as those who had to deal with the crime, have been in my prayer journal,” says Pam Grillis. “And perhaps in a few months, when the media has gone away and others have returned to their busy lives, I will send them cards to let them know that someone still prays for them every day.”

And it’s that “every day” part that pushes on. We mark the 18-yard line black on the night that should have been the start of Jordan Blackwell’s senior season. We drop gift cards off at the sheriff’s office for those on duty to grab a bite to eat.  We read new headlines of how much due process will cost.

And the shock diminishes a little more, and a little more.

Getting back to normal can be a good thing, but it’s also good to keep fresh the soul searching that comes when we’re blind-sided by tragedy. So these days I’m wondering how you’d answer that question that was posed to me: How does a small community deal with all that death?

I welcome your replies.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.